Sunday, March 24, 2013

Quantified self and digital tracking

Have you weighed yourself lately? Kept track of your calories? Tracked how many steps you took? Weighed your stool or tested your urine? If you have, you are part of an increasing number of Americans who are engaged in self tracking.

According to a January survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project , “69% of U.S. adults track a health indicator like weight, diet, exercise routine, or symptom. Of those, half track “in their heads,” one-third keep notes on paper, and one in five use technology to keep tabs on their health status.”

While most self-trackers “keep track in their heads”,  a growing subset, known as the Quantified Self(QS) movement, is using smartphone enabled technology like the Nike Fuel Band, the Fitbit, and wearable sensors from companies like MC10 to go beyond simple dietary tracking.

They are using these tools to track everything from hydration and perspiration to heart-rates and steps taken per day. There are even apps for testing ones urine, Uchek,and feces,PoopDiary, for the extreme self-tracker.

The quantified self movement isn’t your typical movement, its doesn’t have any fancy slogans, self-help books, or paid workshops. Its a true grassroots movement of people using technology to generate real-time data on their lives and then via the internet share their results to inspire and compete with others.

The most basic approach used is to chart relevant statistics like weight, calories eaten per day/meal, hours/minutes spent exercising in a simple spreadsheet or application. This data can be gathered with simple tools like a standard scale and a stopwatch, or with more sophisticated tools like wearable sensors and temporary electronic tattoos. That data can, the apps do it for you, then be visually represented in a way that is more easily understood, like line graphs showing trends or pie-charts breaking down where your calories are coming from.

One person who used this method with great success was Jae Osenbach. She tracked her own dieting process(and shared it online) and learned that she lost more weight when she had her beloved chocolate so long as she also replaced 150 calories from other foods with 150 calories of pine nuts.

Before embarking on this tracking, she had assumed, like many, that in order for her diet to work she would have to forgo her love of chocolate. Having to forgo her chocolate caused her to struggle and “cheat” on her diet. After learning that she need only replace other calories with pine nut calories she was able to maintain her diet and continue to lose weight.

The movement is about to take a giant leap forward beyond scales and smartphones with electronic temporary tattoos and wearable computers. Made possible by companies like MC10 and research like the kind done here at OSU on flexible transistors, these wearable, replaceable, sensors will enable individuals to monitor and track their health in real time in a way that up to this point was limited to medical professionals.

While companies like MC10 are already marketing products that will sense impacts and monitor heart-rates in real time, other companies, like Apple, Samsung, and Google, are working on wearable computers, watches and glasses, that will work in conjunction with smartphones. The natural synergy between wearable computers and wearable sensors cannot be overstated.

The combination of even more powerful devices with even smaller and cheaper sensors will enable individuals to track their health-status in ways that doctors used to dream about. Instead of wondering how many calories you burned on that jog or whether you have had enough water, you will be able to look at a screen and know exactly how much you need to drink or how much farther you need to run.